I certainly don’t consider my upbringing typical. In fact I know its not typical, but it does go a long way to explaining my early beliefs.
I grew up in the Central African country of Zambia, my parents having moved there a few years after independence, taking me with them as a small child. The environment I grew up in was therefore as a white minority, the whites we knew were pretty much all involved in the missionary arena . My mother came from a very strong Brethren tradition but my father came from a less religious background so I am not entirely sure how he came to be involved in such a strong Christian movement.
School was a boarding school in the far North Western province of Zambia. A school with all white teachers, all Christians of course and a very heavy Christian missionary ethos. Discipline was strict, some kids didn’t like it there at all, I don’t recall having any strong feelings either way, I just got used to the routine and dealt with it.
Getting to and from school was always an adventure. For the first few terms I flew in a small 6-seater Cessna plane. Flying through rain was interesting; flying over bush fires could be somewhat concerning, especially when the rising heat caused the plane to loose height due to the reduced lift. One particular large fire I remember caused a very alarming and prolonged period of height loss. Needless to say, most flights involved me heaving up my guts at some point.
Given that this was a boarding school and at that time, the only school I had attended (Sunday school and nursery school excluded) it would be fair to say that the teachers had a huge impression on my life. In fact, from those very early years, I remember more about the school than I do about my home life.
To a large extent, the teachers were very caring and loving. They had to be. They were not just our teachers, they read us stories at night, they comforted us when we needed it, they looked after us when we were unwell, they sat with us at meal times, they watched over us at play time, they taught us to swim, they taught us to play games. For children of that young age, they served a purpose as important as parents and were looked to as parent figures as well as teachers.
These are teachers whose names I still remember and who I would recognise in the street today. Not something I can say about all the teachers I knew at secondary school. Such is the impact they have on children so young.
Generally the teaching was good. Specifically I remember enjoying Maths and French and the quality of this education was reflected in my class placements when I started secondary school in the UK.
Exploration of the world around us was actively encouraged. After all, we were living in the remote African bush, how could you not look around and not be amazed at the wonders of nature. The insects, wild fruit, trees and plants that were all around us were of a huge variety.
When it came to asking questions about these things, it was invariably the teachers who we asked and it was the teachers who we looked to for wisdom on these things. Of course the answers always fitted with a creationist perspective as that was all that was known.
Due to the environment we all lived in, no one questioned the existence of God. The teachers were all Christians, as far as I can tell all the parents were Christians too, Christianity was part of life and there was utterly no need or reason to question that.
Crossing out in the Text Books
One specific event I remember is when new biology books were delivered to the school and my class was the first to get them. On being handed out, our first instruction was to turn to a certain page and cross out a single paragraph. Of course we all read the paragraph before doing so, we were curious kids. I remember it talked about how fish, needing to find resources that were no longer available in their pond or pool would flap out of the water in search of other bodies of water. They would use their fins to help them move on the land and eventually, over many years and generations, these fins developed into legs.
I’ve paraphrased the content because, while I can remember the essence, I can’t remember the exact wording. We all laughed at the silly people who wrote than and crossed out the words with relish.
Now, in hindsight I can see that this is an inaccurate description of evolution and if I saw it in a text book today I’d be dismayed because evolutions does not work in response to animals using their limbs in a different way every now and then, that’s a incorrect description of the process of evolution. However, the reasons for crossing this paragraph out were not because it was evolutionarily wrong, but because it dared to suggest evolution at all. We were taught that everything is as it was created by God in the beginning.
Explore the World
As I have already said, the education received was not all bad, in fact quite the opposite; much of it was a very high quality. Its only the creationist elements that were very wrong.
Specifically I remember the encouragement to explore and examine the world. We were taught that medical discoveries were good because they came from the human desire to seek, to learn and to experiment. This desire was God given and is a good thing. I don’t remember much of science lessons but the explore and discover ethos was also there. If God had given us a wonderful world to live in, why shouldn’t we explore it for all the beauty that had been put there? It would be wasteful not to.
The school always had National Geographic magazines in the library and these were especially my favourite things there to look through. Other kids were reading Lord of the Rings or other great children’s literary novels. I just wanted to read the adventures in NatGeo and wonder at the fabulous pictures there. Specifically I loved the Kids Did It series. I remember the features of the Mount St Helens volcano, the awesome photos and the huge destruction.
I still am in awe of nature all these years later and its this hunger, started all those years ago, that has fuelled my journey from Creationist to atheist. Fuel that was placed and ignited by a desire to see the wonders of Gods creation.